National Libraries Day

It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday the 6th February, so here at the Library of Birmingham we’re celebrating with a blog about the history of library services in Birmingham.

View towards Archives & Collections, level 4, at the Library of Birmingham

View towards Archives & Collections, level 4, at the Library of Birmingham

Private Libraries

Prior to the involvement of the Town Council in 1860, libraries in Birmingham were in private hands, though some did provide public access, albeit at a cost or through subscription. For instance, a free library was established in 1733 through the will of a Reverend Higgs, though it catered only for Anglican clergy and other privileged people. Books were also ‘hired out’ by one Thomas Warren in 1729. A subscription library was certainly in existence by 1751, run by William Hutton, a bookseller and historian based in Bull Street. A number of others followed, with that of John Lowe charging an annual subscription of between 12s and 1½ guineas by 1776.

The biggest advance was made in 1779, when the Birmingham Library was founded by subscription. Whilst the number of subscribers rose steadily, the number of volumes housed in the library grew from 900 to some 16,000 between 1794 and 1818.

Another  library was maintained by the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, founded in 1854. This organisation was successful as it appealed to both the middle and working class on a broad base of subjects, and attracted other private collections, like that of John Lee and those from other institutions, now defunct, such as the Mechanical Institute and the People’s Instruction Society.

The Free Libraries Act

The Free Libraries Act was passed in 1850. It allowed councils to set up free public libraries, allotting one penny in a pound from the rates to finance this (in pre-decimal currency there were 240 pennies in a pound). Two-thirds of the ratepayers had to agree, but when Birmingham first voted in 1852 the majority was not large enough. In 1860 the second vote was successful, and the Free Libraries Committee was set up.

They decided there should be a central reference library with reading and newsrooms, a museum and art gallery, and four district libraries. The architect E. M. Barry was asked to design the Central Library. His costs overall were too high, so William Martin was asked to design the interior, but Barry’s plans for the exterior were retained.

Branch Libraries

In 1860, the Council established a Free Libraries and Museums Committee to compile a report on the subject of free libraries and present it to the main Council committee. The committee recommended that a Libraries Department be formed and a Chief Librarian be appointed. The City was divided into a Central District, with a reference library and a lending library, and a Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western District, each with its own branch library.

Within a year, the first of these branch libraries was opened on Constitution Hill, followed by another at Adderley Park by 1864. The Deritend Branch Library was opened in 1866 and the last of the branch libraries, that at Gosta Green opened just after.

Deritend Branch Library, Birmingham, c.1910 [WK.D1.15]

Deritend Branch Library, Birmingham, c.1910 [WK/D1/15]

 Bloomsbury Library was opened in June 1892, Spring Hill in 1893, and Balsall Heath in 1896 and as a result of the 1911 City Extension Act, the number of libraries rose to 21. These libraries offered not only access to books and newspapers but also provided separate facilities for young people.

The number of branch libraries continued to grow, with land purchased for Ward End Library in 1924, so by 1950 there were 28 branch libraries and new specialist collections were also being added. Further, by July 1929 plans were made for a full Council catalogue of holdings and the purchase of a motor vehicle, thus allowing inter-library lending for the first time!

Birmingham Public Libaries Book Exchange Service Vehicle. [WK-B11-1004]

Birmingham Public Libaries Book Exchange Service Vehicle. [WK-B11-1004]

Libraries and Education

In 1920 the Free Libraries Committee changed its name to the Public Libraries Committee, and immediately investigated the role of libraries in the education of children, advocating better facilities to promote ‘self-development in an atmosphere of freedom’, and closer links with teachers. By 1921, the libraries were also adopting the open access system, rather than relying on a request to a librarian, which ensured a constant growth in the use of the service.

In 1954 the Library Department also opened a small section in the Central Library comprised of books in Indian Languages for the first time and this was followed in 1960 with a library service for the prison at Winson Green.

 Central Reference Library

Work commenced on the Central Reference Library and the Central Lending Library in 1862, with the Lending Library opening in Ratcliffe Place in 1865 and the Reference Library in 1866. The Lending Library also housed some of the City’s Art collection, before it was moved to the newly acquired Aston Hall.

The Reference Library was intended, from the start, to represent every phase of human thought and every creed. Further, it should house rare and costly books otherwise out of reach to individuals. Tragically the Library was burnt down in 1879, but a new Central Reference and Lending Library was quickly built and opened in 1882.

Central Library

In 1938 the committee sought to replace the Central Library with a new building but progress was halted by the outbreak of the Second World War. The third Central Library was not opened until January 1974, with the official opening on a sunny Saturday morning. Harold Wilson first visited the children’s department, and chatted with some of the borrowers there. He then unveiled a plaque for the official opening, and gave a brief outline of the development of library services in Birmingham from 1860 onwards. He toured the building, exchanging words with some of the students and users. Sadly he had to leave for London before the official buffet lunch reception – it was his wife Mary’s 58th birthday, and he had not yet seen her that day!

Harold Wilson opening the Birmingham Central Library. 12 January 1974.

Harold Wilson opening the Birmingham Central Library. 12 January 1974.


The Library of Birmingham

Malala Yousafzai, teh 16 year old education activist and campaigner for the rights of women and girls around the globe, opened the Library of Birmingham, Tuesday 3 September 2013.

Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old education activist and campaigner for the rights of women and girls around the globe, opened the Library of Birmingham, Tuesday 3 September 2013.

The Library of Birmingham opened in September 2013. A flagship building, the Library of Birmingham is a state of the art public library, the largest in Europe, and offers a wide range of services from traditional library services (reference, lending, children’s library etc.) to services for businesses (including the Business and IP Centre in partnership with the British Library), music library, BFI Mediatheque, studio theatre, recording studio, practice rooms, exhibition gallery, conferencing facilities and the Shakespeare Memorial Room. It was the UK’s busiest free visitor attraction outside London in 2014, attracting 2.4 million visitors.

At the time of writing (January 2016) the Library of Birmingham had received a total of 5.5 million visits.

Dawn Beaumont, Head of Library Services
Davis Potts, Head of Library Resources


2 responses to “National Libraries Day

  1. Happy National Libraries Day for Saturday!

  2. Reblogged this on Greenhill Genealogy and commented:
    Reblogging IronRoom blog post on history of libraries in Birmingham to celebrate National Libraries Day – hopefully libraries in Birmingham & across the country (& world) still have a future.

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